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Programme Notes: The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

August 29, 2012

I was recently contacted to write some programme notes for Glasgow Film Theatre, for their screenings of Bart Layton’s The Imposter. Circumstance meant I was unfortunately a little too late to reply to their offer before someone else took up the job, but I decided to produce some programme notes for the film regardless, just for the sake of practice. This is what I came up with.

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Over three years after a child’s 1994 disappearance in San Antonio, Texas, a seemingly traumatised young man found in a phone booth in Spain claimed to be the missing boy. Nicholas Barclay, a blue-eyed, blonde thirteen year old American now had brown eyes, dark hair dyed blonde, an inescapable French accent, less pale skin, and looked much older than sixteen. When circumstances led authorities to believe him after an ambiguously articulated tale, the Barclay family was contacted and Nicholas’ sister travelled to Spain to meet him. Claiming to have escaped from a child prostitution ring where he was tortured, this Nicholas was an imposter, but somehow got by on a series of lies with relatively little question. Sister Carey was convinced this really was Nicholas, changed after abuse that supposedly included physical alterations and punishment upon any speaking of his native tongue, and after arriving in Texas, the imposter was also accepted by Nicholas Barclay’s mother and most of his immediate family. Upon his eventual reveal as a fraud, the press at the time nicknamed the man as “The Chameleon”, and Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter depicts the stranger than fiction tale in an enthralling fashion that doesn’t just rely on the key events of its baffling true story for potency.

The exploits of the imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, have actually received a cinematic treatment before, in a fictionalised account called, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Chameleon (Dir. Jean-Paul Salomé, 2010). Met with mostly mixed to negative reviews from major critical outlets, the film altered the names, transplanted the story to New Orleans, changed the documented response to the returned “Nicholas” by his mother, and framed the story as a police procedural. Some especially negative responses to the film suggested the psychological, emotional and moral implications of the impersonation were not explored, and that it had an ‘unsatisfying, sentimental conclusion’. [1] [2] Though shying away from a Law and Order style mystery approach, The Imposter has its own stylistic trappings that recall elaborate thrillers, specifically those of American gothic fiction.

Part of the thriller feel comes from the heavy use of wonderfully shot dramatic re-enactments of the story’s events, amidst the little archival footage available and leisurely, forcefully static interviews; the film is somewhat stylistically similar to a film like The Thin Blue Line (Dir. Errol Morris, 1988) in this sense. Information peters out slowly through the various documentary techniques, maintaining an equal degree of knowledge between the viewer and the subjects, as the interviewees and the film itself explain events chronologically without revealing what these circumstances eventually led to until the conclusion. Even the name Frédéric Bourdin is absent until the final twenty minutes, the imposter maintaining his anonymity for the viewer until the players onscreen also know who he is. As a result of the film’s techniques, The Imposter has a hypnotic atmosphere. It is also one of constant dread and unease, enhanced by the interviewed Bourdin’s switch between apathy or enthusiastic recollections free of apparent remorse, and frequent cuts to his either nonchalant or smiling face in close-up during the stories of the other talking heads.

In any fictionalised work, the extent of deception at play here would stretch credibility, so the documentary itself is prone to having to confront any claims to authenticity presented. Doubts are cast regarding all parties involved, even the deceived family. Audience sympathies are directed in numerous conflicting directions, exploring the idea of there being two sides to every story in a truly unsettling fashion. If the conclusion of The Chameleon was unsatisfactory to some due to its sentimentality, others may find The Imposter’s frustrating due to its open-ended qualities. Due to the very nature of how the case has developed, the film leaves some of the sinister happenings open to interpretation, further enhancing the creepy atmosphere of its exploration of deception and denial.

Additionally, climaxes to parts of the story that seem to be getting established ultimately don’t occur. The FBI retain some involvement after “Nicholas” goes to San Antonio, but it’s the contributions of private investigator Charlie Parker, suspicious of the imposter’s appearance and behaviour in television interviews, that help fuel the eventual exposure. As one review suggests, all that was needed ‘to complete the gothic mood is a detective digging around under the haunted house. And he duly arrives…’ in the form of Parker. [3] Layton frequently cuts back to Parker in the film’s final stretch, visiting the former Barclay house and receiving permission from the new homeowner to explore any underlying contents of the garden. Intercut with Bourdin’s accusations that members of Nicholas Barclay’s family may have killed the boy, and the family’s outraged rejections, one might expect the film to end with Parker’s discovery of something incriminating. The final shot of the film, however, is of the investigator looking down towards an extensive, seemingly endless digging descent into the former Barclay garden. Nothing has been uncovered but it looks like they’re going to keep digging regardless. In such a horrifying narrative as this, one might feel inclined to keep venturing, regardless of the apparent futility, just to find something to make some sort of concrete sense of it all.

Josh Slater-Williams
Freelance Writer
August 2012

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[1] Aaron Hillis (2011), “What a Tease: Foreshadowing to the Extreme in The Chameleon”, The Village Voice, 13 July 2011, accessed 28/08/2012 at http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-07-13/film/what-a-tease-foreshadowing-to-the-extreme-in-the-chameleon/

[2] Stephen Holden (2011), “A ‘Who Is It?’ More Than a Whodunit”, The New York Times, 14 July 2011, accessed 28/08/2012 at http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/movies/the-chameleon-directed-by-jean-paul-salome-review.html?ref=movies

[3] Lisa Mullen (2012), “The Imposter”, Sight & Sound, Volume 22, Issue 9 (September 2012), p. 91 (pp. 91-92).

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